Before telling a reporter to "shove it" last week, Teresa Heinz Kerry complained that there were "creeping, un-Pennsylvanian and sometimes un-American traits" to the presidential campaign. Few people outside of Wilkes-Barre care much about the epithet "un-Pennsylvanian," but in dropping the "un-American" bomb she highlighted an important truth about today's politics: It is the Democrats who routinely question the GOP's patriotism, not the other way around.
This makes for a fascinating stew of cognitive dissonance, transference and probably odd psychological maladies yet to be identified and labeled. It's not easy to question the patriotism of people you are denouncing for questioning people's patriotism -- but Democrats manage it.
Wes Clark personifies the art form. He gets so angry at Republicans allegedly questioning his patriotism, his head nearly explodes. "This flag is ours! And nobody will take it away from us," he shouted at the Democratic Convention. What is it Nietzsche once said? "No one is such a liar as the indignant man." Or such a hypocrite.
Clark based most of his primary campaign on questioning President Bush's patriotism. He said of Bush's landing on an aircraft carrier, "I don't think it's patriotic." He said that Bush had failed to do his duty to protect the country, and "if you're patriotic, you do your duty." He said of Iraq, "I don't think it was a patriotic war."
Clarke had plenty of company last week. At a Democratic event, Michael Moore bellowed of Republicans: "They are not patriots. They are hate-triots." By which he means, presumably, that they have substituted hatred of the opposition for love of country. From the podium, Ted Kennedy denounced "false patriots," and Howard Dean criticized those who fly "under a banner of false patriotism." The implicit message from both was clear: Republicans aren't true patriots.
This fits a pattern. Back in May, Teresa Heinz Kerry called Dick Cheney "unpatriotic." Sen. Bob Graham has said that Bush's Iraq policy was "anti-patriotic at the core." New York Rep. Nita Lowey has called Republicans "unpatriotic" for cutting taxes. Howard Dean, again, has said that Attorney General John Ashcroft "is not a patriot." John Kerry himself has said that it was "unpatriotic" for Bush's "friends" in the corporate world to outsource jobs overseas. For good measure, Kerry has called those corporate leaders "Benedict Arnold CEOs."
Given the nature of their incendiary charges against Bush, Democrats are almost forced into questioning his patriotism. If Bush really lied the country into a war of choice to boost his own political fortunes, he is a treasonous scoundrel. If the Bush administration creates terror alerts to provide itself political cover, as Dean thinks, it is an unpatriotic monstrosity. If Bush is a "fascist" -- as Dean and prominent environmental activist Robert Kennedy Jr. suggested last week -- he is un-American.
Republican elected officials and the Bush White House don't similarly impugn the Democrats' patriotism. Even if they were so inclined, they wouldn't dare, because the media would flay them alive for it. Designated Democratic martyr Max Cleland -- who was given a prime-time speaking slot last week because he supposedly lost his Georgia Senate seat on charges that he is unpatriotic -- would have been better off if Republicans had actually questioned his patriotism instead of his Senate votes. Cleland could have easily beaten back that over-the-top charge. His record, on the other hand, was harder to defend.
Indeed, it makes sense for Democrats to pretend that the debate is all about whether they are patriotic. To that challenge they can simply answer, "Yes, we are -- next question." This was the flag-waving, reporting-for-duty approach of Sen. Kerry last week. But that's not the issue. It is whether the Democrats have a tough and serious national-security policy, a much more difficult question for them to answer.
If Democrats want to question Republicans' patriotism, that's their business. They just shouldn't pretend that they are the victims of the kind of assault they themselves are launching.